Rewatching the Queer Canon: Chantal Akerman’s ‘Je, tu, il, elle’

Rewatching the Queer Canon: Chantal Akerman’s ‘Je, tu, il, elle’

It happened a little over a week ago, but we’re still recovering from the blow that was dealt us upon learning of the death of Chantal Akerman — a quiet revolutionary, a feminist who seemed at points to reject all ‘isms’, and the seminal Belgian filmmaker whose “Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles” left her name permanently engraved in cinema’s history books. In light of this monumental loss, we revisited her sexually-frustrated avant-garde enigma of a movie, the 1976 Belgian feature “Je, tu, il, elle.”

An ostensibly three-parted no-narrative, the 86-minute work begins like the video diary of a young agoraphobic woman, and turns into a road movie which unquestionably influenced the likes of Vincent Gallo’s “The Brown Bunny.” It closes on a bedroom lesbian encounter, captured with a candor and runtime to rival that much-discussed scene in “Blue is the Warmest Color.”

Having moved home to Belgium after trying to make it as a director elsewhere, 25-year-old Akerman stars here as the nameless, emotionless narrator, shut-in under self-imposed exile and living for days off spoonfuls of caster sugar. She writes mad letters, develops an itch to leave, and hooks up with a wayward married man she meets on the highway. Thereafter, Akerman’s wandering heroine winds up with a girl who says only: “I don’t want you to stay here.” They then eat, drink, have sex, commune. Over the credits, children chant a French nursery rhyme.

Captured in static shots where the camera peers out from within the shadows, the revered filmmaker’s breakthrough picture is a monochrome mystery tinged with the nihilism of sex. We’re only somewhat hesitant to feature it here, for Akerman once forbid its screening in an LGBT program in New York with the following statement, alive with a defiance we can’t help but admire: “I will never permit a film of mine to be shown in a gay film festival.”

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